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Suspect in Wilson Murder Case Speaks Out

In jail three years before being released on bond for his alleged role in a 17-year-old Wilson teen's death, James Johnson speaks out as he waits to see if he goes to trial for the high-profile murder case.

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WILSON, N.C. — James Johnson says he's trying to adjust to life outside jail the best he can.

Three years ago, at the age of 18, he was arrested and charged in connection with the death of Brittany Willis, a 17-year-old high-school soccer player found dead in a field near the Brentwood Shopping Center in Wilson.

In September, Johnson's $1 million bond was reduced to $60,000, and the Wilson County District Attorney's Office handed the case over to a special prosecutor. The North Carolina chapter of the NAACP led a high-profile campaign to dismiss the case based on claims of discrimination and a lack of evidence.

"It was a wonderful feeling. I was going that day thinking it was a trial," Johnson said. "But at the same time, (it was) bittersweet, because I still have to deal with it months down the road."

Now 21, Johnson says he now spends his days at his parents' home in Wilson, visiting with family and friends. He says he wants to pick up where he left off – he's trying to get into college and get back to playing soccer, a sport that won him a scholarship to Louisburg College before he was arrested.

He still faces first-degree kidnapping, robbery, rape and murder charges for crimes, he says, he was shocked to be charged with and maintains he did not commit.

"I was definitely surprised. That's why I evaluate the whole situation and just – I've got to put it in God's hand," Johnson said. "Because I look at it from that standpoint, because God knows I didn't do it, and I know He's behind me."

Last year, Kenneth Meeks, a second man arrested in the case, pleaded guilty to killing Willis, and in a letter to The Wilson Daily Times, said he acted alone. He wrote that all the evidence proved Johnson is innocent.

"I don't know if that took a spiritual thing or a conscious thing, but at least he's not lying anymore, and I know if I can forgive him, I can forgive anyone," Johnson said.

Records show no DNA evidence from Johnson at the crime scene, and Johnson passed a polygraph test in which he denied involvement in the crime.

Johnson did admit to helping Meeks clean fingerprints off Willis' vehicle but said he was under duress. He went to police three days later and reported the crime.

Willis' family, however, has said it believes evidence still warrants a trial.

Whether that happens depends on Forsyth County Assistant District Attorney Belinda Foster, who is evaluating the case to decide if there is evidence to proceed with a trial.

Johnson won't say he isn't worried about the prospect of being convicted – "I'm not ignorant to that fact," he said, referencing the high-profile case of Darryl Hunt, a Winston-Salem man who was wrongfully convicted of murder in 1984 and cleared by DNA evidence nearly 20 years later.

But he attributes his strengthened faith to being able to cope with that possibility.

"I went through a spiritual journey," he said. "I don't want to just seem like I'm running to God when I'm in trouble, because I was dealing with God before this. It just made it stronger and deeper."

"I try not to deal with worry, but of course, it creeps in your head every now and then," he added. "I've been thinking about it for three years. And I try not to let the stress from it overtake me."

Johnson cannot talk about the specifics of the case but says he never thought Meeks was capable of murder. He says he not only prays for Willis' family, but also Meeks'.

"Every family dealing with this situation – (it) is definitely a tragedy. If it was somebody in my family, I wouldn't know how to react," he said. "No one deserves nothing like that."


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